The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The next GOP president won’t walk away from the Iran deal. Here’s why.

Now that we have a nuclear deal with Iran, Republicans are jostling each other to determine who can make the most angry and apocalyptic statements about it.

Scott Walker said it “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” Jeb Bush called it “dangerous, deeply flawed, and short-sighted.” Marco Rubio said it “undermines our national security.” And as usual, Lindsey Graham wins the award for the most unhinged conclusions: the deal is “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel,” he told Bloomberg News. He also said: “You’ve created a possible death sentence for Israel.”

Most of the Republican presidential candidates have pledged in the past not to honor the deal if they reach the White House. But here’s the truth: they will.

So this is one more Obama administration achievement you can add to the list of things that Republicans rage at, insist their presidential candidates pledge to undo, and will one day (if they ever regain the White House) be appalled to find that a president from their party won’t actually be able to roll back.

In the short term, Congressional Republicans are highly unlikely to be able to stop this deal, because doing so would require passing a bill that imposes new sanctions or prevents Obama from lifting existing ones. Obama has already promised to veto such a bill, meaning Republicans would need to muster a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress to override a veto. No doubt speaking for his colleagues, uber-hawk Tom Cotton said: “The American people will repudiate this deal and I believe Congress will kill the deal.” But a Washington Post poll at the end of March found that Americans supported a deal like this one by a margin of 59 to 31 percent, so he’s probably wrong on both counts.

Let’s think for a moment about what it would mean if the next president abandoned this deal. Such an action would involve two parts: reimposing sanctions and walking away from inspections. But there’s no reason to think that the other world powers that agreed to this deal would go along with either one, particularly if the new arrangement is operating as it was intended. Don’t forget that this isn’t a deal between Iran and the United States, it’s a deal between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, and Europe. The reason the current sanctions regime has crippled the Iran’s economy is that it was imposed not just by the United States but also by the United Nations, the European Union, and many other individual countries. So if we reimposed sanctions but those other countries didn’t, Iran would be left with plenty of trading partners.

That means that if President Walker/Bush/Rubio/Trump walked away from the deal, it wouldn’t actually hurt Iran that much. But it would mean saying that America is no longer interested in keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program — we’re going to pull out our inspectors, and as far as we’re concerned they can do what they like.

That’s a plan so stupid that it’s hard to imagine even the current GOP presidential candidates carrying it out.

For now, there are two questions that every Republican who opposes this deal must be asked: First, what’s your alternative? And second, can you explain exactly how your alternative would prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon? Policy choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Whenever we say that one course of action is problematic, we’re saying that another course would be better. As far as I can tell (though it isn’t easy to figure out since they’re so vague on this question), the Republican position is that we should have walked away from these negotiations and just…wait. Then after some undetermined period, Iran would come crawling back and give us everything we could ever want, without the need for any negotiations at all.

No one in his or her right mind actually believes that would happen, of course. And if conservatives are right that Iran is hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon, if the entire deal actually fell apart, there would be no reason for them not to ramp up their nuclear program with all deliberate speed. At which point, Republicans would say we have no choice but to launch military action. So the people who brought you the Iraq War would be sending us into another war in the Middle East, which would no doubt turn out just as splendidly.

All of this isn’t to say that every provision of this deal is exactly what we would have wanted. But that’s the nature of negotiation — you seldom get everything you want, but if it goes well, what you do get is better than the alternative. At the moment Republicans can’t articulate their own alternative, because it sure seems like that alternative is another war. But if they’re fortunate enough to win the White House next year, they’re likely to find that walking away from this deal is a lot less attractive than it seemed when they were trying to win over Republican primary voters.